How to Turn Off Your Anxious Brain

We all have them — those days or nights when the brain simply won’t shut up. Round and round it goes, generating worries and destroying your concentration. Called rumination, it’s as though your brain is stuck in gear and overheating. You can learn to help it slow down and cool off, however. To turn off your brain, you must learn to take your focus off the worry. 

Practiced regularly, these techniques can help eliminate rumination. Remember, it’s not the worry that’s the problem; it’s the brain latching on like a dog with a bone and chewing it to pieces. To change the process you must interrupt the rumination and turn it off. Two additional strategies are to worry once, then let it go, and to plan instead of worrying.

Stop Worries in Their Tracks

Whenever you catch yourself ruminating, stop the thought. Simply picture the ubiquitous red octagon sign and tell yourself, “Stop!” As soon as the thought stops, tell yourself something reassuring, assertive or self-accepting. You can create a list of these and practice: “I am a competent, confident individual.” “I am in control of my thoughts.” You can also use this technique to worry well but only once. Set a timer and spend 10 to 20 minutes intensively worrying about something or about all your worries at once. 

Don’t do anything else, just worry. When the timer alarm sounds, use the stop command. If you’ve identified a worry that needs to be addressed within the next day or two, write it down on your to-do list or calendar. Now, whenever that thought tries to pop up again, you can say “Stop! That worry has been taken care of,” and focus your attention on something else.

Give It a Rest

Just as a machine will wear out if it runs constantly with no maintenance, your brain needs to take a rest from rumination. The ‘turn it off’ strategy allows you to shut down the rumination so your mind can calm down. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed. Imagine that you hold a beautiful vase or decorated container. As each worry comes into your mind, imagine putting it into the container. When you have the container full, imagine closing the lid and put it on a shelf. Now that you have those thoughts neatly packaged, invite a different thought into your mind. If you do this just before bedtime, you can invite a peaceful, pleasant image or thought into your mind as you drift into sleep.

Don’t Worry, Plan

Having a plan can decrease your anxiety and allow your ruminating brain to relax — if you can keep it from thinking of the plan as just something else to worry about. A good plan may need to be tweaked occasionally, but it doesn’t need constant fretting. To make a plan, identify the problem, list possible options to solve it, pick an option and write out a plan of action. Having a plan allows you handle rumination more easily, as you can use it as part of the thought-stopping command. It can also help you break down what seems like an overwhelming problem into small, manageable parts.

Remember, changing habits takes time, and constant rumination is a habit. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes weeks or even months. Be patient; you will gain a sense of power and mastery over your own thoughts.

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